Race to the Top: Beware of strings that bind
by The Savannah Morning News
January 02, 2014 11:59 PM | 3509 views | 0 0 comments | 68 68 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Beware of federal dollars that come with strings attached. They can get expensive. And bind.

That seems to be the message from some local school officials, who publicly fretted last week about a new, merit-based pay plan for teachers in the Savannah-Chatham County public school system that will be implemented next year.

Three years ago, the district agreed to be one of 26 school districts across Georgia that would be part of President Obama’s Race to the Top school improvement effort. Then-Gov. Sonny Perdue applauded Georgia’s selection as one of eight states that made the president’s cut, in part because it meant Georgia would get an additional $400 million over four years from the feds. Several school superintendents practically did cartwheels as well.

In theory, Race to the Top is designed to encourage states to become more creative in improving their public schools. But in practice, it has created a mess, at least in Georgia.

Just before the start of the current school year, the federal Department of Education threatened to withhold nearly $10 million earmarked for Georgia because of problems the state had been having over its teacher-evaluation plans. That move was unprecedented.

John Barge, Georgia’s superintendent of schools, explained over the summer that the state needed another year to come up with a plan, citing negative feedback from educators across the state.

It’s unclear if Thomas Lockamy, superintendent of Savannah-Chatham County schools, had been whispering into Mr. Barge’s ear at that time. However, judging from his comments last week, he’s no fan of what the Obama administration is pushing. That’s disturbing, given what he and the school board are trying to accomplish here.

“I see a lot of troubled waters ahead of us,” Dr. Lockamy said. “There are a lot of issues that are yet to be resolved at the state level and local level.”

A huge concern is creating incentives that could be counter-productive. For example, some teachers will be evaluated and paid based on how their students do on standardized tests. Those who teach subjects not covered on tests will be evaluated based on student outcomes, which is more subjective.

The fear is that this change could trigger a mad dash of teachers scrambling for jobs that promise the biggest paychecks. Let’s hope that’s not the case. The best teachers don’t enter this profession to get rich.

Still, teachers have bills to pay, too. It would be a shame to see good teachers leave positions where they are most needed and make the biggest difference. That’s not how education reform is supposed to work.

That doesn’t mean that merit pay is a dirty word. All workers should be compensated according to their performance, not simply for showing up for work.

But, as is often the case with many changes, the devil is in the details — which apparently are being worked out in Atlanta.

Let’s hope the strings that came with the $400 million from Washington don’t end up choking Savannah-Chatham’s public schools.
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